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A facelift won't cure TTC's mid-life crisis

Joseph Hall

Born in the ’50s, the Toronto Transit Commission is now in a fretful middle age - and a full-blown mid-life crisis.

After a growth spurt during the 1970s, the system now faces a 10-year, $3.8 billion challenge to regain its former fitness.

The province’s assertion that the city can whip Canada’s largest and most important transit agency back into shape on its own property tax dime simply does not take the TTC’s condition into account.

“The disentanglement deal the province made with the city is just not flexible enough to work when you look at the requirement and the changing budgetary needs of a major transit system,” says new TTC chair Brian Ashton.

“We need a basic facelift and refurbishment. We need to reinvigorate the TTC.”

But the TTC requires more than a facelift. It needs massive surgery in the form of replacement vehicles.

Over the next 10 years it’ll need 212 more subway cars, 770 low-floor buses and an overhaul of 148 streetcars just to maintain current standards.

As the fight rages between Queen’s Park and city hall over Toronto’s ability to pay for its downloaded responsibilities, Ashton is urging a calm look at transit financing.

Unlike many government-funded services, transit is a capital-intensive proposition and the costs of replacing aging equipment are always painful.

Since many TTC vehicles were purchased during expansions in the 1970s and ’80s - with the province picking up 75 per cent of the tab - they are now in urgent need of replacement.

“Transit budgets are not static. They increase and decrease as things age,” Ashton says.

“And these types of disentanglements and divorces between the province and cities don’t work when you look at the major requirements of a transit system.”

Under the disentanglement deal, the province agreed to pick up the city’s $600 million portion of the education bill while downloading transit, social housing and other services on to the municipalities.

Queen’s Park agreed to a one-time payment of $829 million to cover its traditional share of the TTC’s capital costs - including the Sheppard subway line - through 2002.

After that, the city would theoretically be able to cover the TTC’s capital expense with the money freed up by the province’s assumption of the education bill.

But that downloading exercise, which was supposed to be revenue neutral, assumed that the TTC’s capital needs would be static, Ashton says.

“In that particular deal there was an established average of $240 million capital contribution to the TTC,” he says. “But what you see there was a failure on the part of the province and Metro to properly put on the financial agenda the longer-term impact of running a major transit system.”

Those longer-term impacts are now looming, with the TTC’s capital budget expected to hit $500 million by 2007 - up from a low of about $200 million in 2002.

What’s more, the new city council will need to commit to much of that budget increase during this three-year term because buses and subways must be ordered years in advance.

So the urgency of acquiring a funding source apart from the city’s property tax is growing.

Ashton says the city’s property tax base is flat even during boom times and cannot handle the wild fluctuations in transit capital requirements.

“Meanwhile the province and federal governments are squirrelling money away in bank vaults,” he says.

Still, he’s looking for d�tente.

“We should both take a cold shower and then we’ll meet afterwards and look at the real dollars and the real realities - no shouting and no accusations,” Ashton says. “That’s all I want.”

That would at least be a start.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at